How the pariah state Zimbabwe is wooing the West for business

President-elect Emmerson Mnangagwa declared: “Zimbabwe is open for business.” In reality, it seems, the country is for sale.

In the early hours of 3 August, Emmerson Mnangagwa was declared president-elect of Zimbabwe after a disputed election. Although there were a record 23 presidential candidates, the real contest was between Zanu-PF’s Mnangagwa, the 75-year-old winner of last year’s “non-coup-coup”, which ended Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule, and Nelson Chamisa, the 40-year-old leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance.

Yet regardless of the election result, Zimbabwe was destined to remain subject to the neoliberalism embraced by both main parties. The opposition MDC, which emerged from the trade union movement and railed against the structural adjustment programme of the Nineties, has championed free market policies, creating a void in the country’s politics.

The roots of this outcome lie in Zimbabwe’s past. In 1979, the UK brokered a negotiated settlement at Lancaster House under which the white Rhodesian minority government agreed to transfer political control to the black majority in return for a constitution that protected white property rights. Land reform was deferred as Zimbabwe’s foreign policy reflected its reliance on Western investment. Under the 1980 peace settlement, white landowners were granted ten years of protection from any restitution measures.

In the Nineties, the national unity Zanu-PF presided over was threatened on two fronts. The labour movement and the NGO community challenged the government’s structural adjustment policies, which precipitated an economic downturn, while war veterans demanded compensation, including land and more generous pensions. In response, Mugabe’s government chose to challenge the labour movement, accusing it of complicity with British imperialists, and increased the compensation awarded to the war veterans.

To maintain support, Zanu-PF increasingly relied on the mythology of the liberation struggle. The economic situation was worsened by Zimbabwe’s profit-seeking involvement in the Congo civil war, which cost as much as $1m a day. A revival of the land reform question – and often violent confiscation of white-owned farms – was instrumental in turning the unruly war veterans into allies of Zanu-PF.

Unfortunately, Morgan Tsvangirai, who led the MDC from 1999 until his death earlier this year, played into Mugabe’s hands. Tsvangirai lacked a deeper historical appreciation of the war veterans’ plight, and how this made them manipulable by Zanu-PF. He dismissed them as “a bunch of outlaws” and declared that once the MDC was in power it would have its “own resettlement scheme and they [war veterans] can take their place in the queue with everyone else, but they will have no priority”.

The MDC’s abandonment of liberation politics was symbolised by its use of an open palm as the party emblem. This was a deliberate break with the clenched fist – the international symbol of black liberation – adopted by Zanu-PF during the Chimurenga “land reform programme”.

Throughout the violent clashes of the 2008 elections, the fist was prominent in Zanu-PF’s campaign materials, symbolising its iron grip on power. MDC’s open palm was a post-revolutionary gesture intended to signify a shift from nationalist to democratic politics. “We have nothing to hide, we carry no weapons, and we promote the ideals of a peaceful democracy,” the party declared.

The opposition has since moved further away from the left, culminating in an election manifesto billed as “Smart” (Sustainable and Modernisation Agenda for Real Transformation). With a young leader, Nelson Chamisa, prone to elaborating his dreams of “spaghetti roads” and bullet trains in Zimbabwe, the document was unambiguously focused on enticing international investors.

While the ruling Zanu-PF is more sober in its promises, there is little to differentiate its economic policy. In a political masterstroke, it has appropriated the opposition’s anti-Mugabe politics and neoliberal policies, recasting them in pro-liberation terms.

At a January rally, Mnangagwa, or “ED” as he is known to most Zimbabweans, declared that “in November, Zanu-PF, like a beast, went to the dip tank”. In view of the aim of “restoring the legacy” of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, one might have expected Mnangagwa to champion an Afrocentric development agenda rooted in the politics of land and resource sovereignty. But the new president went through the dip tank and emerged as Davos man. Wearing his now trademark Zimbabwe flag scarf, a relaxed and affable Mnangagwa declared to the world: “Zimbabwe is open for business.” In reality, it seems, Zimbabwe is for sale.

The “indigenisation” policy – which gave Zimbabweans the right to take over and control 51 per cent of foreign companies – has in effect been scrapped as part of a national economic policy dependent on foreign direct investment from the same Bretton Woods institutions whose advice led to the economic crash of the Nineties. On the issue of land reform, Mnangagwa has spoken of compensation for white farmers, declaring a break with “outdated thinking”.

Days after the most peaceful election Zimbabwe has seen in years, unarmed opposition protestors were murdered in Harare’s streets by the military. After the careful stage management of the de facto coup in November, the post-election crackdown risks undermining Mnangagwa’s bid to secure funding from the international community. But countries such as the UK, South Africa and China have urged the opposition to accept the result: stability rather than democracy seems paramount.

With Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF’s rule likely to be consolidated over the next few months, Zimbabwe faces a Rwanda-style, military-backed regime – endorsed by the West, despite opposition outcry.

Panashe Chigumadzi’s “These Bones Will Rise Again” is published by The Indigo Press

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